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The Delta Ladies


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About The Book

The “imaginative” (Booklist) #1 New York Times bestseller praised for her “real and endearing” characters (Los Angeles Times), rekindles our romance with this enchanting classic novel in which a man reunites with two long lost loves in his small southern hometown—and discovers some passions never die out.

Cader Harris shook the dust of Hayden, Louisiana from his feet eighteen years ago, aided by his football prowess, his movie-star good looks—and most of all by a handsome payoff from Foster Doyle Hayden, who thought that Cader wasn’t good enough for his daughter, Irene.

When Irene married someone else and too few months later gave birth, Cader was shocked. He kept his side of the bargain, but now a secret oil deal gives him an excuse to see his son and the tempestuous woman he should have claimed long ago.

But before Irene there was Sunday Waters, who gave Cader her heart and soul. Then Irene snapped her fingers and Cader came running. Now Cader will discover how much can change when girls become women…and that sometimes a dwindling fire can reignite a blaze hotter than before.


Chapter One

At an altitude of five hundred feet, a pilot could expect to experience occasional patches of scudding clouds misting against the windshield and ruffling like hazy feathers as they were chewed in voracious bites by the twin-engine Beechcraft. But the day was cloudless, the sky a vibrant blue. The early morning sun had scorched away the sporadic tufts of cloud and blazed through the cockpit, giving off a steady, baking heat that even the direct flow from the air vents could not dispel. It was a glorious day, the kind of day Cader Harris associated with dropping a baited hook from the fertile banks along the river and snagging a pike, or, with extraordinary luck, a meal-sized catfish. It was a good day for returning to his hometown of Hayden, Louisiana.

By squinting his eyes and looking off to the west, Cader could see the long stretch of hard-packed clay leading to the black-topped strip of the local small-plane airport. A glance at his fuel gauge assured him he had another fifteen minutes of flight time before the spiky needle pointed to empty. On a sudden whim, he banked to the left twenty degrees, heading east now, away from the airstrip. He hadn't called in to the flight tower for permission to land as yet, and he allowed his impulses to take him on a long, slow circle of the town. From his increased altitude of seven hundred feet, he imagined he would experience a new perspective on the place of his beginnings.

There, on the Louisiana Delta, on a lazy spur of the Mississippi flowing into the greater waters of the Gulf of Mexico, rested the town of Hayden. The white-spired steeple of the Baptist Church, circled by an expanse of new, lushly green lawn and dotted at its rear by neatly tended tombstones, was easily discernible. A peaceful town, populated by some fifteen thousand upright, law-abiding citizens, it was named for Jatha Hayden, its founding father, and had carried his name proudly for nearly one hundred seventy-five years.

Cader smiled to himself. Seen from up here it could be any small town in the country. The myriad styles of architecture from the Greek Revival to the New England saltbox represented a kaleidoscope of life styles. Even seen from the ground Hayden could have been anywhere in the continental United States, with its street names like Magnolia Drive and Chinaberry Circle, and Sunday dinners of fried chicken and pecan pie. But Cader knew it was the people, their values and prejudices, the highs and lows of their humanity that made Hayden what it was -- just another town.

Cader's sharp eye caught sight of the narrow strip of railroad tracks that divided the town. Deliberately, he veered his Beechcraft again, preferring to remain on the north side of Hayden, away from the overgrown tracts and rows of ramshackle hovels where he had been born. Instead, he concentrated his attentions on the more favored side of Hayden, the scrupulously tended lawns and neat rows of houses.

Cader remembered the markers the Junior Women's League had erected amid the tree-lined streets that denoted the supposed, rather than the exact, location of such historic and memorable events as: Jatha Hayden House, first established homesite, or the Jatha Hayden Library, founded by Jatha and Cloris Hayden, nestled in among other interesting and necessary tidbits of the town's history. Cader's back teeth clenched and he grimaced in a way that passed for a smile. In new-found, mature understanding he realized the only thing "historically accurate" about these markers was that the ladies agreed on where they should be placed.

The blacktopped roof of the Jatha Hayden High School tipped into view. Cader had attended the school for four of the most important years of his life: four years of fame and glory on the football field that eventually led him to college and ultimately into the flamboyant world of pro ball.

While a young student at Hayden High, Cader's ability for football had come into prominence. In spite of his poor beginnings, coming from the wrong side of the tracks as he did, he drew the notice of Foster Doyle Hayden, the last living descendant of the founding father to carry on the Hayden name. Football had always been Hayden's obsession, and when Cader had come into the limelight during his highschool career, Foster Doyle noticed him, taking vicarious pleasure in the young man's success. Rumor had it that Cader had been offered a scholarship to Tulane University and had accepted it.

Cader's mouth tightened to a grim line. Some might call what he'd done "selling out." Cader preferred to call it cutting his losses. And when Cader cut his losses, he cut everything, including Irene Hayden, Foster Doyle's white-skinned, golden-haired daughter. Irene, the original golden girl, with the autocratic temperament of a thoroughbred racehorse and the lusty appetites of a high-class whore. When Foster Doyle told Cader that Irene was pregnant with his child, Cader saw all his ambitions going down the drain.

Expecting Hayden to ride his back and demand he marry Irene, Cader visualized a future with himself under Foster Doyle's imperious thumb, running the bases at the man's whim. Instead, Hayden floored Cader by offering him an escape -- leave town...never see Irene again...and Cader would be rewarded with enrollment at Tulane University, tuition and all expenses paid, not to mention a very healthy allowance paid to a bank once a month.

Escape...a way out...a path with which Cader Harris was very familiar. More than an escape...a dream...something he'd wanted all his life and always believed was beyond his reach.

Tulane...the gem of the Southern for clothes, a car, enough left over to see to his drunken father's support. All he had to do was agree to Hayden's bargain.

Still, there was Irene to consider. Hayden had sneered at Cader's hesitation. Irene had a position to maintain and the family name to consider. Irene's problem could be solved.

Cader hadn't been able to reach an immediate decision. He loved Irene, but the lure of escaping his humble beginnings to the upper echelons of Tulane, paid for and supported by Hayden, was impossible to resist. He would have everything going for him. He already had the magazine looks, the physique to wear the magazine clothes and the athletic and sexual prowess to bring it all together. He would be a star! A football hero! Pursued by the girls, envied by the guys.

To Cader's own amazement, breaking ties with the hometown had proved to be difficult. While in attendance at prep school to gain the necessary credits to enter the university in the fall, he had subscribed to the town paper. It was there he learned of the surprising marriage of Irene Hayden and Arthur Thomas. The news depressed him. Despite the enthusiastic female attention surrounding him, his thoughts still clung to Irene. He admitted a sense of loss, a heartfelt regret, yet upon reflection he was relieved to have made his escape with so few scars.

One evening, after football practice with the Tulane team, he happened to read the Hayden paper. In the social column was the announcement that Irene Hayden Thomas had given birth to a son, Kevin Hayden Thomas. A quick count on his fingers gave him his answer. A son. His son.

When Foster Doyle had proclaimed he would "take care of everything," Cader had assumed he meant an abortion for Irene.

Looking out of the cockpit down on the town of Hayden, Cader brought himself back to the present. Somewhere, down in that green patchwork, was his son. A boy known as Kevin Thomas. And Cader would see him, find him.

He had merely cut his losses, Cader justified; he hadn't really traded Irene and his son for a chance to cross the tracks into acceptable society. And he'd kept his bargain, until now. Not even when his father had died had Cader returned to Hayden. Not that he would have been so inclined anyway. But he had kept his bargain, and if in a weak moment his conscience pricked him, he knew with supreme arrogance and utter confidence that with a snap of his fingers he could cancel it all out and Irene would come running. So far, he hadn't had to draw on his one last reserve; he'd never snapped his fingers.

Having flown beyond the limits of town, the landscape below had become low, flat plains; he was over the truck farms that skirted Hayden. Six or seven miles to the south the tall stacks of the catcrackers belonging to the Delta Oil Company were visible and the eternal flame of the flare-tower smoked hotly into the noonday sun like an angry, fire-breathing sentry. In a natural progression of thought, Cader smiled, squinting against the glare bouncing off his windshield as he accelerated his Beechcraft toward the offensive sight of gray steel and blackened machinery and sterile girders that were the Delta Oil Company. One thought just naturally seemed to follow the other these days; old man Hayden, the granddaddy of us all, and good ol' Delta oil.

Long before he approached the blackened ErectorSet construction of the oil refinery, Cader glanced down and was able to pick out the wide, three-mile strip of beach and the hundreds of acres of pampas grass behind it that were the bone of contention between the magnates of Delta Oil and the citizens of Hayden. It was there, on what had always been referred to as Jatha Beach, that Delta wanted to erect those ominous-looking and lethal-sounding, liquid natural gas holding tanks.

Although the title and deed for the innocent playground of the young people of Hayden rested in the town's hands, Foster Doyle Hayden, last living descendant of the original founding father to carry on the name, was bitterly opposed to the plan. His opinion weighed heavily in the small, sleepy town.

Foster Doyle Hayden was pleased when he heard himself referred to as the genteel, soft-spoken, white-haired town father. He was a paternal figure, upheld for his civic responsibility and generous endowments to his town. He was a paragon, a model of virtue. Secretly, he likened himself to Teddy Roosevelt, speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

On more than one occasion the members of the town council, on which he served as president, had seen Foster Doyle's big stick. And on the matter of Delta Oil's infiltration into the town, they had felt it.

Foster Doyle was a reactionary of the first order. All argument proclaiming the economic advantages

Delta Oil would bring was lost on him. He liked the town as it was, sleeping and submerged, untouched by progress. Delta Oil's intrusion would mean a change. Any commercial growth would involve an influx of trade and people into his town. If Delta Oil meant growth, and growth meant change, Foster Doyle would have none of it. He didn't want to lose control of Hayden to a pack of upstarts with revolutionary ideas and possibly more money than he had to see those ideas to fruition.

Foster Doyle was confident of his control as it now stood. The council understood his thinly veiled threats, just as they were meant to. They comprehended his stated concern that the new medical center could be delayed indefinitely; that financial contributions for the library's new wing and various and sundry other pet projects of the council would never see the light of day without his financial support.

The town of Hayden rested in Foster Doyle's gnarled hand, a hand that could close like a vise if and when he chose. Delta Oil needed someone to combat Foster Doyle's influence. Who was better for the job of turning opinion in favor of the LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) than Cader Harris? A native-born son of Hayden, retired from a football career in which he became a national hero and pride of his hometown, Cader filled Delta Oil's bill. He was a handsome, vital man of thirty-six, irresistibly attractive to women, while at the same time considered a "man's man." Delta considered their problem practically solved.

The title of Public Relations Advisor was dreamed up by Cader himself. It was meant to salve his conscience, while in truth Harris needed no second urging, trumped-up title or no. He had too much to gain to be concerned with scruples, even if the least of these advantages was the easing of the life-long grudge he'd carried around with him against the town of Hayden and its democracy-loving citizens. Cader saw his position with Delta as an ideal opportunity to retaliate for the hurts and slights he had suffered at their hands while he was growing up among them. He'd make them accept those natural gas tanks, accept them and love them even. And then he'd take the money and run and never look backward to see if those great gray giants ever blew up in their faces.

Revenge wasn't the only reason Cader jumped at this chance. The success or failure he brought about for Delta was tied in with his own personal success or failure. He knew what it meant to be a "has-been." The popularity Delta Oil insisted Cader enjoyed in Hayden was not indicative of the status he experienced beyond the town's limits. The high salary and financial rewards he'd earned as an athlete had been lost to extravagance and poor management. All that remained was several thousand in the bank, this twin-engined Beechcraft given to him by the enamored daughter of a manufacturing scion who expected love in return for her generosity, and a rapidly crumbling identity. Cader knew there was no middle of the road. You were either a "somebody" or you were a "nobody." Money went a long way in ensuring you the former status.

A quarter-of-a-million-dollar commission and a contract for commercials and advertising endorsing Delta Oil would have been inducement enough for Harris to set fire to the whole damn town, let alone persuade them that the LNGs would be good for them.

Just thinking about it caused a fine beading of perspiration to moisten his upper lip. Taking his powerful, sun-gilded hand from the stick, he wiped it away. He knew this was do or die. The end of the road. He knew he couldn't make that uphill swing from nobody to somebody again, no matter what. This was his last chance and he had to make the best of it. A sinking, gut-churning feeling, like a steel rod stiffing his insides around, hit him full force. The way things had been running these last few years he'd need everything Lady Luck could blow his way. It was almost as though he had grease on his sneakers and he was on a downhill slide. This was it, everything, and he had to make a good job of it. Delta Oil was his salvation; indeed, it had become his redeemer.

The faint cough from the right engine caught Cader's attention. Immediately, his eyes flew to the fuel gauge. Empty. Just enough reserve to land. Christ! Just when he almost had it all, it would be just his luck to daydream his way into a tailspin and finish his life where he started it--4n the rubble outside the limits of Hayden. He reached for the headset and adjusted it, tuning for the air control, requesting permission to land.

Sunday Waters brushed her long, honey-blond hair out of her eyes and concentrated on guiding her blue Mustang down the quiet, tree-lined street. She gently pressed the clutch with her neat, white-sandaled foot as she glided to a stop at the corner light at Jatha Hayden Boulevard and Leland Avenue. A quick look at the gold circle on her wrist and she sighed with relief. She was early for her appointment with Marc Baldwin, the gynecologist.

With her slender hand on the gearshift as she waited for the line of traffic to move on Hayden Boulevard, she caught sight of a low-flying plane circling over the high school. Narrowing her light blue eyes against the glare of the sun, Sunday leaned forward and peered up at the craft. She supposed it was one of the crop dusters who earned extra pocket money by taking on aspiring students who were bent on earning their pilot's license. However, on closer examination, the plane didn't appear to be one of the patched and re patched disasters the pilots around Hayden used to spread their insecticides on the crops.

A pinch of memory nearly caused her to stall out the '72 Mustang. A memory of Cader Harris and herself stretched out in the tall grass skirting the airport, watching the planes take off and land on the steaming, sticky blacktop in the midday heat of summer. Cader had always been crazy for anything connected with flying, and he had dragged her out to that landing strip more times than she could count to watch the fragile machines soar into the air and to listen to their engines sputter and finally roar to life as they wound up for takeoff.

The tall, scratchy grass would whisper all around them, concealing them from passers-by. The millions of insects hiding there with them would often sting them in buzzing protest at this invasion. But Sunday would have cheerfully walked into a snake pit with Cader Harris if she could lie there beside him and watch the excitement mount in his dancing dark eyes and know that soon, when he had had his fill of watching the aluminum birds sweep the sky, he would turn to her, take her in his arms and teach her to fly even though her bare little ass never left the dry, sunbaked ground.

Sunday was lifted from her reverie by the sight of a young boy and two girls approaching the boulevard. How young they were, as young as Cader and herself all those many summers ago. God, was she ever that young? Of course she was, but she had never looked like the youngsters approaching the crosswalk. They were Ivy League, spit and polish, Ivory soap and Crest toothpaste. She had spent her teen-aged years wearing made-over dresses from her aunt who lived in New Orleans. New clothes and even decent meals took second place to Bud Waters's daily consumption of liquor.

She recognized the young people as they neared the curb. Kevin and Bethany Thomas, Arthur's children, and Judy Evans. Sunday blinked when she saw Kevin throw back his head and laugh at something his sister had said. A knot of nostalgia tightened in her chest. She remembered being carefree and smart and having someone look at her that way. Cader Harris had when Sunday had been his girl -- his blond and bouncy and wonderfully happy girl. Until he tried to make that leap across the tracks into Hayden's inner circle via Irene Hayden who could open those doors for him. Sunday sighed; one way or another, even without Irene, Cader had opened those doors. And the result was the same; Sunday had been left behind.

The Mustang bucked slightly with the pressure of her foot, and as the children passed the car, Sunday noticed the proprietary look in Judy Evans's eyes. Young romance, she mused to herself, as she eased the car onto Jatha Hayden Boulevard. And what was that glimmer of hostility on Bethany's face? Sunday frowned. If she hadn't known they were brother and sister, she would have marked it down to jealousy. Now what the hell did that mean? Whatever, it was none of her business. Sooner or later their father, Arthur Thomas, would tell her every niggling little problem riddling his family. It was impossible to have an affair with a man and not be aware of his problems. If they were problems. And somehow, in her gut, she knew the Thomas kids were a problem. With Irene Thomas for their mother, how could it be otherwise?

Stopping for yet another traffic light, Sunday let her eyes travel the length of the boulevard with its patriarchal sycamore trees. Everything looked normal and tranquil. Yet she fully expected that at any moment the world would turn upside down. Cader Harris was coming back to Hayden. To open a sporting goods store, rumor had it. She had been serving the usual Scotch and water to Gene McDermott in the Lemon Drop Inn where she worked as a cocktail waitress when Neil Hollister broke the news. It was a miracle her hand remained steady when she placed Gene's double Scotch in front of him. Neil had said he was writing up a feature story on Cader, and he knew the wire services would pick it up. Then he had winked at her and grinned. "Stud Harris," he had laughed. "Every woman in town will either run for cover or else they'll become overnight sports buffs." Sunday had remained silent, smiling vaguely, trying to hide the fact that her heart was leaping up her windpipe.

Why was he coming back to Hayden now? After all this time? Oh, she'd heard that tale about the sporting goods shop, but Cader wasn't a merchant type. Unless he had changed drastically over the years, he'd never make a go of it. A business took time, effort and money. Money was something Cader had always been short of, saying it was something to be spent and enjoyed; let someone else take care of the rainy days. Still, after a career like his, money should be the least of his worries. Maybe he had changed now that he was older and settled. But somehow she didn't believe Cader Harris had changed one bit.

Behind her a born sounded, and she pushed the clutch to the floor and moved with the traffic. She still had ten minutes to make it to Dr. Baldwin's office for her monthly Pap test. Now, there was a man, she thought. Marc Baldwin. Attractive and virile, and no doubt a master of a woman's psyche. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and pulled into his parking lot, obeying the sign that said to park "head on." A Freudian slip, doctor? She laughed to herself. It was funny, but she had never thought of Marc as making known his sexual preferences. She had always thought of him in the context of complying with a woman's preferences. Lucky Julia, Marc's wife.

Sunday stepped from the car and smoothed her cornflower-blue dress over her hips. She knew it matched her eyes perfectly and did wonderful things for her complexion and honey-colored hair. Squaring her shoulders, she headed for the Medical Building, which housed an ophthalmologist, two dentists, an optician and, of course, Marc Baldwin's ob-gyn offices.

When Sunday stepped into the cool of the air conditioning, she frowned slightly when she noted Marsha Evans sitting at the reception desk. She chastised herself for making her appointment on Marion's day off. Sunday didn't care much for Marsha. She couldn't say why, exactly; Marsha had always been very pleasant and never looked down her patrician nose at Sunday for being a mere cocktail waitress. Still, it was hard to read Marsha. All the signals got crossed somehow.

"Hi, Sunday. Marc will be ready for you in a bit." Marsha smiled, her voice soft and friendly. "Have a seat. It must be getting really hot out there."

Sunday forced herself to answer politely. She found herself actually clenching her back teeth to keep from spitting out the replies. Why did Marsha Evans have this effect on her? Going one step further to hide her hostility, Sunday volunteered, "I just saw Judy crossing the boulevard with the Thomas kids. She looked so pretty, all smiles and giggles."

"I'd guess she had a lot to giggle about," Marsha answered, looking at Sunday levelly, her dark green eyes holding a soft, maternal humor. "The last day of school. Remember how that felt, Sunday? Three long months out of jail to play and swim and have a good time?"

"Yeah, I remember," Sunday answered, reaching impatiently for a dog-eared magazine and pretending to see something of profound interest in its pages. She supposed Marsha hadn't meant anything in her remark about fun and swimming and good times. Maybe that's what her summers were like, but there was nothing in what Marsha said that even faintly resembled Sunday's summers. Hers had been an endless chore of taking in ironing with her mother and slaving away in the tobacco fields while the sun burned half her brain to a crisp, and forgetting what it felt like to stand up straight until someone came along and cracked her back so she could hobble over to the truck that would take her back to town.

Sunday was suddenly nervous. Even the quiet beige tones of the waiting room couldn't quell the jittery feeling creeping over her. Cader was coming back to town.

A buzzer sounded on Marsha's desk, and she closed her appointment book. She fixed a crisp, professional smile on her face and walked into the examining room, her hips swaying seductively in the white uniform.

Sunday sighed as she looked around the office. Besides her, the only other patient was an older woman whose name eluded her at the moment. Discarding her hastily chosen magazine, she reached for one with a new-looking glossy cover, relieved to note it bore the latest date. Leafing through the silky pages, something caught her eye. The caption read, "Is it possible -- the multiple orgasm?" She suppressed a smile. You betcha! Her smile widened to a grin. Once, when she was in high school, she had had a triple with Cader who almost went out of his mind as he matched her, 0. for 0. So much for novices who claimed it was merely a myth, she thought smugly, closing the magazine and tossing it onto the glass-topped table.

Was it warm in here or was it her? She noticed the soft hum of the air conditioner. No, it was her. Gently, she brought her fingers to her cheek, careful not to smudge the rosy blush on her high cheekbones. She felt flushed. Even as she thought of the word, she had an instant vision of herself disappearing down the bottom of a filthy toilet and Cader Harris pushing the handle again and again as he laughed down at her. Flushed, all right, right down the old john. Well, that's what he had done, wasn't it? When he'd gotten that "too good to turn down" offer to attend Tulane. She wondered vaguely if she were running a temperature. God, she couldn't get sick now, not with Cader coming back to town. And, she reminded herself, I have to stop by Arthur's funeral home. "Damn!" she muttered, why had she promised she would stop by today? For the hundred dollars, she admitted with rare honesty. Pap tests every month were expensive, not to mention the douches when you used them as often as she did. Besides, the extra money would come in handy just about now. There was a stunner of a dress in the Monde Boutique that would knock Cader's eyes right out of his head.

She shrugged. As fly-blown as she felt today, she would keep her promise to Arthur. He needed her and in some small way she was able to make him happy, temporarily, until he went home to face his wife, Irene Hayden Thomas. Well, there was nothing she could do about his home life. Everyone had problems. It seemed enough for Arthur that Sunday offered him her friendship and a quick piece of ass in the casket display room. Funny thing about that though, Arthur had become a special friend to her. It had nothing to do with the money he pressed on her and she readily took, it was much more. He had become someone who was really interested in her, in what she was feeling. Sunday had shared some of her most personal secrets and fears with stodgy old Arthur Thomas and, most important of all, he seemed to care. At least he never laughed at her, not to her face anyway. She was bursting to tell him that Cader was coming back to town, but somehow she knew she wouldn't. How could she admit, even to herself, that even after nearly twenty years she could still get herself into a flap at just the mention of his name. Eighteen long, frustrating years since she last saw the tail end of Cader Harris. What would Hayden's wonder boy think when he saw her now that she lived on the right side of the tracks and wore the right clothes and makeup?

"Sunday, Dr. Baldwin will see you now," Marsha Evans said in her most professional tone as she stepped aside to allow Sunday to pass into the examining room. "You know the procedure; you can hang your clothes there on the rack. There's a fresh gown on the shelf. The doctor will be with you shortly. "

Sunday's eyes narrowed and she shot Marsha a quizzical glance. Was that some kind of crack, that bit about, "you know the procedure"? You could never tell with Marsha. Sometimes butter would melt in her mouth, and other times she could be as caustic as the lye vat Granny used for making soap. Stepping into the cool, almost cold, examining room with its austere stainless steel fittings, Sunday reached behind her and shut the door with emphasis. As she struggled with the long zipper on the back of her dress, she wondered why Marsha's remark should rub her the wrong way. So what if she was a fanatic about these Pap smears? Wasn't it a known fact that her own mother had died of pelvic cancer that was discovered long after there could be any help for her?

And Ma had been a good woman, she thought as she wrestled with her panty hose, not! She finished her thought with determination. Admit it. Ma always said only women who lived sordid lives got diseases in their female organs. Ma's shame about the cancer had almost been greater than her pain and fear of death.

Marsha Evans stepped back into the confining cubicle just as Sunday was folding her panties and placing them neatly on the little swivel stool. She handed her the pale blue paper gown and tied it at the neck after Sunday pushed her arms through the arm holes.

"It'll be a few minutes yet before Marc is ready to see you," Marsha explained. "Have a seat. Would you like a magazine while you're waiting?"

Sunday shook her head. "I'll be fine."

Marsha heard the phone on her desk buzz and made a quick, smooth exit.

Sunday lowered herself onto the stool and crossed her elegantly long legs. She wanted a cigarette but knew Marc wouldn't approve.

Being naked under the tissue gown made her vaguely uneasy. Being here in this sterile atmosphere was different from being naked in her apartment or being naked with a man. Here, she felt exposed.

She could hear Marsha's voice speaking to a patient on the phone. Her voice was softly modulated, quite unlike the harsh scream Sunday knew she was capable of. During their high school years Marsha was a member of the cheerleading squad. Sunday laughed to herself. This was the fourth time in a single hour that she had paused to reflect on those long ago days. She supposed hearing about Cader's return to town had everything to do with her turn of thoughts.

As she listened to Marsha's voice, her thoughts spun back again to when she was a freshman in Jatha Hayden High School.

The day had been warm for the end of September, even by Louisiana standards. Notice had been posted on the bulletin board that tryouts for the cheerleading squad would be held on the athletic field immediately after school. In honor of the occasion Sunday had changed to her least faded pair of shorts and had carefully whitened her broken-down sneakers with shoe polish the night before. More than anything, she wanted to make the squad. She knew she was good.
Her slim, graceful body was agile and when she made her jumps and splits her thick, honey-blond hair would bounce appealingly.

Sunday knew looks counted and was optimistic about making it, but she had certain apprehensions concerning Irene Hayden, the stuck-up captain of the cheerleading team, and her covey of cohorts, which included Marsha Taylor and Julia Wilson. But they had always been nice to her, even if there was a distinct flavor of condescension in their attitudes. Sunday wasn't in their league and she knew it. More important, they knew it too. Girls from the wrong side of the tracks just didn't find a welcome in the ranks of Hayden's leading families' darling daughters.

At the far end of the football field the Jatha Hayden High School Band marched through its paces, the sound of the snare drums setting the beat, the blare of the trumpets reverberating through the air. On the bare clay patch near the bleachers the contenders gathered, observed and measured by Mrs. Hurley, the girls' gym teacher, and the existing cheerleading squad. Sunday saw Irene Hayden watch her arrival on the field. Sunday lifted her chin and smiled a greeting that was ignored by the modishly dressed Miss Hayden. Marsha Taylor and Julia Wilson sat on either side of the squad's captain, and both of them gestured a greeting. But Irene's eyes were hard and cold and appraising.

A commotion of masculine voices startled Sunday and, turning to her right, she could see several members of the football team gathering to feast their eyes on the bare legs and sweatered bosoms of the contenders for the two open positions on the squad. A bright golden head caught her attention, and she knew without looking that it belonged to Cader Harris, Jatha Hayden's star player. She heard Rudy Barnett's jeering comments as the first girl went through her routine of cheers. Sunday flushed pink. Why did Rudy Barnett have to be here now? Rudy, with his leering eyes and coarse comments and groping hands. He played fullback for the team, and his influence over the guys was second only to Cader's. Sunday hated Rudy. He was a pig. Only last week he had followed her home, trailing behind her in spite of her determination to ignore him. Long ago, Sunday had learned that boys like Rudy Barnett thought she was an easy lay. And what infuriated her more than anything was that their opinion was derived more from where she lived than from what kind of girl she was. Girls born and bred in the row of shacks lining the tobacco fields always had a rough time of it, and Sunday was no exception.

When Sunday was next in line to go up, she glanced into the bleachers and saw Irene Hayden whispering to Marsha and Julia. Their giggles and stares told her that she was the subject of their laughter. Sunday wanted to run off the field, but then her eyes fell on Cader. He smiled at her encouragingly, his eyes squinting against the sun, his strong teeth flashing. In spite of her self-consciousness, Sunday smiled back. Cader Harris had always been one of her favorite people. Even though she came from the row of shacks on the other side of town, he ignored her reputation. The few times he had even spoken to her she had gotten the feeling that he liked her.

Mrs. Hurley was calling her name. She was up. After a quick glance into the bleachers and seeing the expression on Irene's face, Sunday knew she wasn't going to be picked. She had seen Irene's curious glance move to Cader and then back to Sunday. It was as simple as that. Sunday Waters was a loser again.

She went through the cheers mechanically. Her voice cracked as she yelled the familiar cheer, and she shrank from the puzzled frown on Mrs. Hurley's face, a frown that said Mrs. Hurley knew Sunday was capable of a much better performance.

A titter of excitement trilled through the other contenders as they waited for the results to be called. Sunday sat alone, her heart sinking lower and lower. She hadn't made it. Of that she was certain. She hadn't done her best. She had been put off by Irene's glaring looks and Rudy's lewd comments.

The two girls were picked and called amid a clapping of hands and hoots from the boys. As she had predicted, she was not named. Not even as a substitute. Sunday slunk off the field, heading for the locker room and the showers.

The locker room was empty, as she had anticipated. She kicked off her sneakers, now smudged with dirt and clay from the field and, with a true aim, they landed with a rumble in the bottom of her locker. Impatient fingers tore at the button at the waist of her shorts and pulled them down over her slim, curving hips. As she sat on the long bench to tear off her socks, her emotions welled. It isn't fair! It isn't fair! The injustice of it all overwhelmed her. If she had been born a Hayden, not a single boy in town would have had a word to say about her, even if she were the biggest put-out in the school. If she had nice clothes and lived in a nice house like the rest of the girls, she would have been accepted. If Irene Hayden wasn't such a snot, she would have had a better chance of making the squad. If Cader Harris hadn't looked at her and if Irene hadn't seen him, she wouldn't have been the object of ridicule, and she could have done her best. If! If! If!

Furious with herself, she slipped the light sweater over her head and fumbled with the clasp of her bra.

Impatiently, she slipped her arms through the straps and twisted the garment around so the hooks were at the front. She stepped out of her panties and grabbed the thin, frayed towel she kept in her locker.

The showers were empty and would most likely remain so. All the other girls had nice houses with nice bathrooms and indoor plumbing. The best thing about school was being able to take a shower, even in the winter, when the water from the pump at home would freeze to a thin layer of ice in the dishpan unless it was left heating on the stove.

The needle-sharp spray stung her shoulders and the steam rose near her feet. She wouldn't think about the cheerleading squad. She'd been dumb to think she could have made it anyway. Besides, if you were a cheerleader, you were expected to look nice all the time. Her two outgrown dresses and three skirts and four blouses didn't exactly compose a wardrobe. And then there were the homecoming dances and the Varsity Hops...

A sound echoed through the hiss of water. Turning to the doorway, she almost fainted when she saw Rudy Barnett and his cronies leering at her.

"Get out of here, Rudy Barnett," she screamed, "and take your trash with you!" She turned to face the wall, conscious of her bare behind exposed to their gaping stares.

"We didn't know you were in here, Sunday. Honest! Right guys?" His voice betrayed him as a liar. "We just heard the water runnin' and we came in to shut it off. Right guys?"

"I don't care what you're here for....Get out!" She was crying, humiliated.

They knew she was alone in here. They had come after her. Silently, she prayed.

"Now, Sunday," Rudy mocked, "why don't you shut that water off and bring your lil ol' ass over here? We only want to see if that's all you. We got a little bet ridin' on it. Some of the guys don't believe that's all you under those tight sweaters..."

"Get out!" There was hysteria in her voice.

"I told them that was all Sunny Waters in those sweaters. I told 'em how I ought to know, only they don't believe me." Rudy spoke smoothly, sneeringly, threateningly.

"You don't know anything, you pig. Now get out of here!"

"Come on, Sunny, don't make a fool out of me in front of my friends. All we want is a little fun, right guys?" She heard his step on the tile floor and pressed herself closer against the wall. "All we want is a little of what you're givin' to everybody else. It's for the good of the team, ain't it guys?" There was a low rumble of voices and jeers and taunts.

"Let's see it, Sunday, c'mon. Just let us see it, we won't touch you, right guys?"

"Please, leave me alone," Sunday pleaded through her tears and the rushing water. "Please, leave me be..."

"You heard the little lady," a voice strong with purpose, in contrast with Rudy's wheedling, echoed in the shower room and contracted the muscles in Sunday's back. "Now get your asses out of here and make sure I don't hear of you pulling another stunt like this. Leave her alone and that goes for now as well as later."

"Christ, Cade, we didn't mean nothin'; we was only havin' a little fun," Rudy whined.

"I don't give a shit what you thought you were doing. Now get out of here!" His voice rang with authority.

Vaguely, through her terror, Sunday recognized the shuffle of feet leaving the shower room. She crumpled to the floor, her face hidden in her hands. Her whole body was in flames of humiliation.

She heard Cader moving through the shower room and realized he had turned off the water. Her towel fell over her. "Sunny, Sunny, I'm sorry this happened to you." His voice was soft with compassion and closer than she would have imagined. She took her shaking hand away from her eyes and looked up into his. He had dropped to one knee beside her. "I'd give anything if those animals hadn't done this. If I'd known what they were up to, I would have stopped it long before this. Better not come into the locker room alone for a while. Okay?"

Her head nodded automatically.

"Now get yourself dressed. I'll be waiting for you outside the door. I'll walk you home so those guys don't get any funny ideas. You gonna be all right? Should I get Mrs. Hurley in here to help you? I wouldn't want to get the guys in any trouble, but you could say you were feeling sick..."

Sunday shook her head. Her voice became unstuck and sounded feeble. "I'll...I'll be all right."

"You sure?" His hands closed over her shoulders, helping her up. When she looked up into his eyes again, she saw that he held her gaze, being certain not to allow his eyes to wander.

When she heard him close the door behind him she set about dressing. She wanted to get out of the shower room, out of the lonely locker room. She wanted to be out of the school. Out of Hayden itself. If she let herself think about what had happened, she knew she would die. Not here, get home. Just get home. The thought of the dark little shack on the other side of town became her target. Just get home. Never before had she realized how comforting that word could be. Home.

Cader held true to his word. When she stepped out into the hallway, he was waiting for her. "You don't have to walk me home; I'll be all right." Her voice was shaky.

"I'm going that way; it's no problem." His tone was still soft, compassionate.

She fell into step beside him, her eyes fixed on her old loafers with the now-dull pennies in the slots over the instep.

If the sun was still warm, she didn't feel it. She only felt the warmth of the friendship Cader was offering her. And if there were sounds in the street, she didn't hear them. She was only conscious of the sound of his voice.

"Feeling better?" Cader asked when they were almost to the lane that turned down toward her house.

"No," she answered flatly, candidly. "I'll never feel better again."

"That's no way to be, Sunny. Those jerks can't get you down; you're made of better stuff than that."

"But they saw me! They saw me!" Her tone rose to a pitch, just below hysteria; her face flushed scarlet. "They think I'm a whore and that I'd put out for anybody. And the truth is I never...never." She broke off into sobs.

"Hey, don't you think I know that?" Cader placed his arms around her and soothed, "I know what kind of a girl you are, Sunny. Look, I can't let you go home like this, c'mon. " He took her hand and led her onto the dirt road through the tobacco crop. Still crying, Sunday followed, unmindful of the crusty black dirt beneath her feet and the breezes bending the yellow-green tobacco plants that stood sentinel as they awaited a late harvest.

Cader led her to a grassy oasis on the far side of the field over which one lone oak provided shade. Leaning against the trunk of the gnarled tree, he took her in his arms. "Cry, Sunny. Cry it all out."

"I can't cry like that, Cader. It won't come out like that. I'm too mad. Too humiliated."

"Aw, why are you humiliated? You've got nothing to be ashamed about. Don't you know that? You're beautiful, Sunny. The most beautiful girl I've ever seen. You're too good for those jerks and they know it. You watch, they won't be able to look you in the eye, not the other way 'round. You just hold up your head 'cause you know you're too good, too beautiful for the likes of them."

Sunny lifted her head, blue-gray eyes swimming with tears, a look of wonder on her face. She could hardly believe this was Cader Harris, the Cader Harris, talking to her this way. She had always liked him because, while he was brash with the other boys, he had always been nice to her. But she hadn't known how kind he could be, how sweet and gentle. Cader Harris was the only boy in school who never frightened her, who had never looked at her as though she were a piece of meat. She had always supposed he had never noticed her, but now, here he was telling her that she was beautiful.

Softly, his lips brushed her cheek. Lighter than the wings of a butterfly, softer than the touch of the sun and gentler than the caress of her mother's hand. Cader kissed her.

He told her she was good, that she was beautiful, and she knew he was sincere. As she leaned her head against his chest, she could hear the thumping of his heart. In that instant she knew that she wanted to belong to Cader Harris. For ever and ever. And with a knowledge beyond her experience, she knew she would give herself to Cader Harris. Soon. Soon. And that would be the happiest day of her life.

Sunday Waters smiled to herself when she remembered that hot afternoon in a tobacco field. Cader had been warm and understanding and caring. He had shown her the person inside the football hero, the gentleness behind the rough exterior, the generosity beneath the selfish facade. Sunday knew intuitively that whatever else Cader Harris displayed to the world, she had seen the real man that day in the tobacco field. Beneath the hot Louisiana sun, shaded by the outspread arms of a lone oak, Sunday Waters had given her heart to Cader Harris.

Marc Baldwin knocked perfunctorily before admitting himself into the examination room. Sunday had seen him only two nights ago at the Lemon Drop Inn; now, somehow, he seemed different, taller, leaner in his white coat with his stethoscope hanging casually from his neck. His dark hair was trimmed to exactly the correct length and his face was still smooth from his morning shave. She could even pick up the faint aroma of his Aramis cologne.

"How are you today, Miss Waters? Any problem or just the Pap smear?" Marc always referred to her as Sunday whenever she met him socially, but in the office it was always "Miss Waters," And it was nice the way he always said, "How are you today," rather than using that cutesy medical lingo of "How are we today?" He knew how to treat people, especially women, as individuals. He was never patronizing.

"The Pap smear..." Sunday said softly, grateful for the fact that he didn't lecture her about the ridiculousness of these frequent tests. He had long ago explained to her that if these checkups gave Sunday peace of mind then she was entitled to his time and patience. She adored Marc Baldwin, just as all the other women who comprised his practice loved him. He was the answer to a woman's prayers. A progressive thinker with a true appreciation for the female species. Women's Lib had invaded Hayden, and Marc's office was littered with appropriate reading material, such as Ms. magazine and Viva. Even Playgirl made its appearance among the copies of Cosmopolitan. Not for Marc Baldwin's office were the ragged copies of Good Housekeeping or House Beautiful. His approach to his patients was friendly and capable and he made them feel comfortable discussing their most intimate problems as he lent an interested ear. And consideration! Marc Baldwin was the leader in his profession as far as consideration was concerned. Didn't he actually warm his instruments under hot water before inserting them into the tensed vaginas of his patients? This alone, the ladies of Hayden agreed, proved that Marc Baldwin was an understanding friend and physician.

Attaching the blood-pressure cuff around Sunday's arm, Marc instructed Marsha to prepare the slide for the Pap test. While the scratchy sleeve swelled on her arm, Sunday watched through narrowed eyes as Marsha took her place behind the stool where the doctor would sit.

"Blood pressure's normal. Now, for your heart." A moment later, "Everything sounds just fine." Stepping closer, the fragrance of his Aramis wafting across the small space between them, his long, gentle fingers probed the neck of the paper gown, exposing her breasts. He lifted her left arm. Tension. Quickly and expertly, his slender fingers probed and prodded. A silent sigh. "Fine, Miss Waters. Now for the Pap test and then you can take advantage of what's left of this beautiful day. It's really getting a head start on summer, wouldn't you say?" he asked, smiling warmly, waiting for her answer, giving every impression that he was interested in her opinion. In truth, Marc Baldwin was prolonging the moment before he began the examination.

"I would say," Sunday answered, her voice tight as she slid down on the paper-covered table and hooked her bare feet into the icy stirrups.

Dr. Baldwin motioned for Marsha to hand him the speculum that had been warming in the pan of warm water in the sink. He lowered himself onto the stool at the foot of the table, his eyes level with the tender pink between Sunday's spread legs. Another examination to get through. Whenever he conducted pelvic examinations on any except pregnant women, he dreaded the ordeal. It was like looking into a bird's vacated nest. Damp and dark, void of all life. During pregnancy, it was suffused with color, a nesting place, a nurturing place, a place of miracles.

Half listening, he heard Sunday say something. "Hmmm," he murmured. Goddamn it! Why did all women think they were duty bound to keep up a running conversation while he probed their vaginas.

Marc let his breath out slowly as he inserted the instrument. Deftly, his hand steady, he scraped her cervix and wiped the swab across the glass Marsha held out for him.

Sunday felt the machinations connected with her examination, aware of the slightest touch, even of Marc's breath feathering against the inside of her thigh. There was no shame here, no feeling of being immodest or clinically explored beneath the indecent light which cast its warmth between her spread legs. When Marc Baldwin was at the helm, even the awkward position necessitated by the examination was like a sensuous pose for a girlie magazine. Marc wasn't the kind of doctor who hurried through the exam, tittering nervously and barely touching his patient with his sterile, rubber gloves. When Marc touched you, you knew it. His grip was firm and personal. His attitude confident and unembarrassed. God! Lucky Julia. Here was a man with a true appreciation for the female body, inside as well as out.

"Everything looks fine, really fine," Marc assured her in a deep voice. Inside the dark depths of her own vagina was the one place a woman could never look. It wasn't as if it were her liver or kidneys. No one else could look there either without the help of machines. This was a private place, her own place, where others could look only with compliance on her part and a good strong light. It was the place where she gave and received pleasure during the sex act, the place from which she bore her children. And yet, lovers, husbands, strangers even, could look into the depths of a woman's vagina and see what she herself could never see.

"No sign of irritation," Marc continued. "Good color, a healthy pink. No sign of blood or swelling. Everything looks better than normal."

That was another of the phrases Dr. Baldwin used to make Sunday, as well as his other patients, feel special. "Better than normal." Somehow those words put a woman above all others.

Unceremoniously, he removed the speculum. Sunday Waters, Marc thought to himself, was the only one of his patients who didn't flinch when the clamp was inserted and who didn't squeal, "Oh, what a relief!" when it was removed. Marc could feel the tension leaving his jaw as he saw out of the corner of his eye Sunday unhooking her feet from the stirrups and sliding backward on the high table to a more dignified position. Jesus, he thought for the millionth time since he began his career in gynecology, why, when he peered into the dim, rosy depths of a woman's vagina, did he always expect to see teeth? Christ! What was it that Sunday was saying about multiple orgasms? He nodded to show her he had heard and made a pretense of studying her words. "Anything is possible, Miss Waters. So many women, unfortunately so, consider discussion about orgasms...embarrassing," he managed to choke out before returning to his chart.

Sunday rearranged her paper gown. "On the contrary. I find it very interesting," she bubbled delightedly. "I once had a friend who had a triple orgasm." A sigh from Marsha. "It must be one hell of an experience, don't you think, Doctor?"

Marc Baldwin swallowed hard, his head bent over the chart. Jesus, sweet Jesus. He looked up from the chart, a smile warming his lips, his expression conveying little else besides a physician's concern. "An unforgettable experience, in my opinion." Then, changing the subject, "There's no need for you to come into my consultation office. Everything looks fine. That is, unless you have something you'd like to discuss with me."

Sunday returned his smile. "No, everything is fine in every other department too."

"In that case, have a nice day, Miss Waters."

Back in his office Marc Baldwin sat down on his swivel chair behind his massive desk and turned till he faced the blank wall behind him. Jumping Jesus! He got them all. Multiple orgasms, triple orgasms! He wondered if Sunday herself was the one with the triple. No doubt. He swallowed again as he rubbed his temples. This time her vagina had smelled like tangerines. Last month it had been Listerine and the month before that, lilacs. He turned on his chair and wished fervently that the hospital would call, telling him that Sara Stone had gone into labor. Anything to avoid Mrs. Gallagher's pelvic examination. He hated to see the wrinkly, leathery skin of her thighs and the sparse, white hair between her legs. And she always smelled of dry urine. Not to mention that she was the worst squealer of the lot. "Oooh, Doctor! That hurts!" she would cackle and he knew damn well she loved every minute of it. He also knew the day some woman had an orgasm on the examination table was the day he would end his practice.

Marsha Evans opened the door and spoke quietly. "Mrs. Gallagher is ready in room three and your wife called. She said for you to call her back when you have a free moment. I made an appointment for Sunday Waters for next month, and she paid by check."

"Thanks, Marsha. Tell Mrs. Gallagher I'll be right in. Did her report come back from the lab?"

"I enclosed it in her file. It's on your door shelf."

"Marsha, if you'd like to leave a little early today, Mrs. Gallagher is our last patient, and there's no need for you to straighten up. The cleaning woman comes in at five. By the way, Marsha, I really appreciate your filling in for Marion."

"Love doing it, Marc. But I will take you up on your offer to leave early. Today was Judy's last day of school, and I promised we'd go out for dinner."

Sunday exited the doctor's office, her mood lightened now that the examination was over. She knew she was paranoid about uterine cancer, but she couldn't help it.

She backed her Mustang out of the parking space, narrowly missing Mrs. Gallagher's Mercedes. That's what her name was. Gallagher. God, she was old. Imagine having to examine a pussy like hers. Poor Marc Baldwin. She wondered if Mrs. Gallagher would be as uncomfortable in Marsha Evans's presence as she had been. She shivered in the warm closeness of her car and flipped on the air conditioning and headed for Arthur Thomas's funeral home.

First, she would park in the lot and walk toward the drugstore, and, if no one was about, she would go in the back door of the mortuary. She looked at her watch. Four forty-five. A quick one, home for a shower and then on duty at the Lemon Drop at five-thirty. It would be cutting it close, but she had promised Arthur, and she wouldn't go back on her word.

Just as she climbed from her car she noticed Kevin and Beth round the comer and enter the mortuary. Damn! How long would they stay? At least fifteen minutes, she told herself. She looked around again and climbed back behind the wheel. She would call Arthur from home and make other arrangements. Later in the week, Friday or possibly Saturday afternoon. This way, when she went to the bank on Monday, she could deposit her pay and Arthur's contribution at the same time.

Once again, she backed her Mustang from its parking place and this time headed for home. She would try to make it Friday.

That way she could feel secure with his hundred dollars in her purse.

Copyright © 1980 by Fern Michaels

About The Author

Photo Credit: Emmet Martin

New York Times bestselling author Fern Michaels has a passion for romance, often with a dash of suspense and drama. It stems from her other joys in life—her family, animals, and historic home. She is usually found in South Carolina, where she is either tapping out stories on her computer, rescuing or supporting animal organizations, or dabbling in some kind of historical restoration.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Books (March 1, 1995)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671799175

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